Gas Taxes: Are EVs Paying Their Fair Share?

So, it seems that that reason #736 the EVs will cause the fall of western civilization is that, because “free-loading” EV owners don’t buy gas, they don’t pay gas taxes that funds infrastructure improvements, thus literally causing the collapse of society as bridges fall and roads crumble.

I think everyone would agree that our infrastructure in the US needs help and I think any responsible EV owner is willing to help pay reasonable fees to help with the upkeep of the public infrastructure they use every day. The trick, it seems, is defining “reasonable” in a manner that is, um, reasonable.

To do that, let’s look at the following information for the US. The table below lists the state gasoline tax and average miles driven for all 50 states. The remaining columns list the gas taxes that would be paid into state coffers by average drivers of several types of vehicles:

  • A “car” with a fuel efficiency rating of 25.2 MPG (the average MPG for all vehicles in the US in 2017)
  • The most fuel efficient iteration of a 4WD gasoline Ford F-150 (22 MPG, combined)
  • The venerable Toyota Prius hybrid (52 MPG, combined)
  • For balance, the Lamborghini Aventador (11 MPG, combined)
Sources: USA Today, fueleconomy.gov

For example, in California’s gas tax is $0.555 per gallon and the average owner drives 12,982 miles so a typical Ford F-150 owner would pay $328 in gas taxes in one year. If legislators are looking replace lost revenue with an EV-specific fee, I would argue the table roughly defines the bounds of what is reasonable.

Let’s poke at the underlying assertion a bit: are EVs starving state budgets and are fees an effective strategy to solve funding issues? According to EV-volumes.com, plug-ins were 2.1% of all new car sales in 2018 and all together there are about 1.1 million EVs on the roads today. For comparison, there were 276 million registered vehicles in the US in the 2018. Those ratios tell me that whatever impact EVs might be having on gas tax revenues, it’s small and heavily diluted by broader trends like the overall increase in vehicle fuel efficiency.

While taxing EVs will have limited fiscal benefit, EVs owners do fall into a sweet spot for political benefit: they are large enough group to be publicly visible but small enough to not pose a significant political threat if irritated (yay, us). Washington state senator Steve Hobbs, recently proposed raising the state’s EV registration fee from $150 to $325 and part of his stated logic was “…the fact of the matter is that people who can afford electric vehicles are able to afford to pay a little more in fees.” It does seem like there is not a lot of actual math behind some of these proposals as EV populations are still small enough that states are not going to be able to fix their structural funding shortfalls on the backs of EV owners. These EV fees seem more designed to score cheap political points or be punitive and surreptitiously anti-EV–Illinois briefly considered a $1,000 EV registration fee. There have been over 2 million Priuses sold in the US and you don’t see anyone proposing a Prius tax because their owners are not buying enough gas, so it makes you wonder why EVs are being singled out.

While EV owners are not going to solve our states’ budget woes, we should be paying something to support the infrastructure we use. So, how much? It seems most states are settling into the $150 to $250 range. If you look at the average MPG column, that range for EV registration fees don’t seem too outrageous. Arguably still high, but at least there is some defensible logic behind the low-to-middle part of that range. The problem with that is that EV owners are still sometimes being excessively penalized for choosing fuel efficient vehicles, especially at the top end of that range.

Going back to California (which is actually pretty reasonable) the average driver is paying $286 in gas tax so the $150-$175 annual EV seems like a deal especially when you consider that the driver of a 52 MPG Prius is paying $136. Yes, you can argue that the Tesla Model 3 has MPGe in the 120 range so you would be paying even less gas tax, but, that seems a rather specious argument to me–its not going to gain you many sympathizers.

However, EV drivers to the north in Washington state may have a stronger case for inequity. The average driver pays $212 in gas tax while the new EV fee is $225, which is more than double what the Prius driver is paying and is more in line with the gas tax paid by the 22 MPG F-150 driver.

Is that fair? To be honest, it’s a question with no definitive answer. In most cases so far, it seems that EV owners are paying more than their fair share. Perhaps the only clear conclusion you can draw is that the gas tax is a horrible way to raise funds for infrastructure. It’s broken and as vehicle fuel efficiency continues to increase, it will only get more broken.

This whole free-loader/gas tax narrative is a relatively new front for EV FUD. It depends on the perception that EVs are still for the rich and that most folks don’t know how much they pay each year in fuel taxes. The best way to counter this is with data (which you now have) and to stay abreast of what your legislatures are up to.

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